Home » True Grit: Can Perseverance be Taught? By Angela Lee Duckworth (Transcript)

True Grit: Can Perseverance be Taught? By Angela Lee Duckworth (Transcript)

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Angela Lee Duckworth

Here is the full transcript of psychologist Angela Lee Duckworth’s TEDx Talk: True Grit: Can Perseverance be Taught? at TEDxBlue.

Listen to the MP3 Audio here: True Grit Can Perseverance be Taught by Angela Lee Duckworth at TEDxBlue


So I’m a psychologist and I study achievement. Most psychologists who study achievement study intelligence. And I think that if the last talk didn’t convince you and I have a suspicion you didn’t need a whole lot of convincing, intelligence is — there’s only part of the story, maybe a very small part of the story. And it is, in fact possible that we even have that small part of the story wrong. In terms of intelligence being thought to be something largely inherited and not developed. Something that is relatively immutable over the course of one’s life.

But I came to a study of all the other things that intelligence, everything else, that made up achievement. In kind of a circuitous route — so I was 32 when I started graduate school. You know, I turned to my left and to my right and everybody else was drinking cappuccino and studying at one in the morning because they were 22, not 32. And so, I actually think that my life story is a great example of actually not having grit, not having enough grit. Maybe having some talent but not actually having — what I now study is one of the key and probably necessary ingredients of high achievement in any field that you want to consider.

So, what I did between the age of 22 and 32 was many different things all of which I think sounded good on a resume. I was a McKinsey Consultant, I went to Oxford for a couple of years on a prestigious fellowship. I was the COO of a non-profit website for parents to get school information that sounds good, that was good, sounds good and was good. I taught in various schools in New York and in Philadelphia and in San Francisco. And all this added up to a great person to have dinner with because that person had done a lot of interesting things and had done most of those things actually relatively well.

But what I realized is that if you are a boat, a really fast, shiny boat, which is going quickly towards one destination but then tacks to another direction, to go to another port, and then tacks again — essentially you end up being a really pretty shiny boat that goes fast nowhere. And, so my own kind of personal experience and probably my lack of grit, actually, led me to study this quality in some detail. And I’m going to mention something that I’ll get to later in the talk but it’s called the “10 year rule.” So it turns out that there is really no domain of expertise that has been studied where the world class performers have put in fewer than 10 years of consistent, deliberate practice to get to where they are.

So, I started graduate school in 2002 — I have three more years on my clock — which means many things, among which means I can’t give up until I have at least put in my 10 years and see, whether I’ve gotten anywhere.

Psychologists have been interested in the distinction between talent and everything else for years. Right? So, before we had words to describe it we were also probably interested in it. But here is a quote from Clark Hall, one of the eminent American psychologists of the early 20th century. He wrote a little review, he kind of reviewed the literature that was out there, which was quite easy to do in 1928, there was a whole lot less of it. He said, you know there are really two things: there’s our talent and I would emphasize what Chris said, talent is multifaceted, there’s creativity, there’s visual creativity, that’s different from musical creativity, there’s analytical talent, there’s athletic talent, there is musical talent. But let’s put them all on one category. There’s intelligence as conventionally defined, and then there are all those many things that are so much worse understood in a way, all the capacities that allow us to unlock our talents and he would put those in the category of industry.

William James made the same distinction. William James wrote a famous essay in 1907 called, “The Energies of Men,” and William James who arguably is the founder of American psychology said that there are our talents and those things that unlock our talents and we could design all of psychology to try to understand these two things.

I would argue that we’ve done some amount of work on the talents and almost nothing on the unlocking. When I considered what is it that unlocks people’s potential, what enables people to become a world class musician, a world class teacher, a world class performer. I struggled with this word to call what I was becoming to understand was one of these key ingredients. Eventually I called it grit, which I named in part after the somewhat mediocre western John Wayne starred in; I’ll say a little more about that but, the reason why I came to this concept of grit was I interviewed people that I knew that were at the tops of their fields, so it was relatively opportunistic. I mean I interviewed my friend who had won a MacArthur, I interviewed investment bankers who at least at that time were very successful.

I interviewed, musicians and professors, and the like. And people would often say, the people who are top in my field, they are the really talented ones. But just as often, and in fact I would say more often, people said that these individuals at the top of their fields had this kind of tenacious, dogged perseverance unlike anyone else that they knew and it was actually that which vaulted them to the top. So I called it “true grit” after this movie which is really about a young girl from Yale County, Arkansas who like in typical western form, her father is unjustly murdered, she spends the rest of the movie avenging his death, and Rooster Cogburn plays the one-eyed, semi-alcoholic sheriff who follows her along. And everyone thinks that true grit is really about John Wayne, of course, and it’s really about this young girl who against all odds pursues a very long term, almost impossible goal and eventually — with the emphasis on eventually, succeeds in that goal. And this is the quality that I study.

Charles Darwin had a half cousin named Francis Galton, and they shared a correspondence. I like to think that correspondence today is as rich and personally revealing as it was when you had to put a pen to paper. So, maybe if they had emailed they would have shared the same kinds of conversations. This conversation, this quote, this is actually the letter on the left and, maybe a little more legible on the right, was Charles Darwin’s response to Francis Galton who had written a book called “Hereditary Genius.” Francis Galton made the claim that genius had 3 parts: one part talent, one part passion or zeal and one part hard work.

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And Charles Darwin’s response to that was, “That’s a really interesting idea, I thought it was all the hard work and the passion, maybe there’s a role for talent after all.” Charles Darwin himself didn’t actually consider his intellect to be at all special. He thought he had a quite ordinary mind. But a very specific interest and focus and a lot of zeal and hard work.

Moving up a little closer to where we are in time, there was a graduate student at Stanford named Katherine Cox, she was a graduate student of a professor there named Lewis Termin, he gave us, possibly the most widely used intelligence test today, the Sanford-Binnet IQ test. She was doing her graduate work in a lab where everybody studied intelligence and how to measure it and was it possible to measure it very early in life and could we predict genius and so forth.

And Katherine took a very different take on her own research. She wanted to know what are these other qualities that make for genius, that make for realized genius, people who are actually going to do something in the world. So she read the biographies of 300 well known geniuses and she isolated a few qualities which really distinguish the geniuses who made a mark on the world.

One of them was the tendency not to abandon task from mere changeability in her words. In other words not being a dilettante, not being a flake, not being me from the age of 22 to 32. Right? Sort of from one award to another, from one career to another, never actually setting sights on a port that I was going to consistently work towards, right? And I think we know many many extremely bright people who don’t have the capacity to stay on task, towards one goal and keep switching from one to the other.

I teach at Penn, I see hundreds and thousands of kids pass through Penn’s, you know, Ivy League portals and they have this conception that essentially when they go off into the world it will be an OK and good strategy to go to law school and if I don’t like law, I filled my pre-med requirements so I could always go back and do medical school and if I don’t like that there’s always management consulting; the fall back of any Ivy League graduate, right.

And what I want to tell them is that history and psychology tell us that changing around a lot is actually not a good way to get anywhere. The other quality that she isolated in her work, in her sort of reading of biographies was probably more predictable. I think many teachers and even many kids might recognize that having perseverance in the face of adversity, setbacks, failures, that is important. And that it’s the combination of those things that I call grit. So it’s this stamina quality, not just being passionate but sustaining that passion for a long time. And these are items that I give in a questionnaire when I try to measure this quality in studies.

Then the perseverance part as well, right. Setbacks don’t disappoint me, I finish whatever I begin, I’m determined. I’m going to walk you through a couple of studies, and then I am going to speculate and it’s only going to be a speculation about what we could possibly do for young people to cultivate this quality.

The first study I want to tell you about was done at West Point Military Academy. The first summer when you go to West Point is called “Beast Barracks.” So you show up, they check you for tattoos, can’t have a tattoo if you go to West Point, they shave your hair, they sit you down and you take a very very long battery of psychological intelligence tests. So I slipped in the grit scale, on this second day of training for a group of cadets. And I like many other psychologists had my battery of measures kind of hoping that I would be able to predict something over and beyond, what else is being collected at West Point.

West Point has been collecting data for many years on what predicts survival through “Beast Barracks.” So they lose a good number of their cadets every summer that they do this, the first year of cadets even though they try to select the sort of people who obviously are not going to drop out.

So here are the results, grit is the dark blue line and essentially how to read this graph is that on the left is the percentage of the cadets, who actually retained through the summer, the summer of “Beast Barracks.” And on the X axis is what quartile you’re in. So at the far right hand here, we have people in the top quartile on grit scores – 96% of those cadets actually stayed through the summer. And you can see, essentially, that there’s this positive relationship — more grit more likely to stay.

Here is the whole candidate score, this is a weighted average of your SAT, your GPA, how many push-ups you can do, literally. And you can see that, it’s actually true that if you’re in the bottom 25% of their whole candidate score you are more likely to drop out, but isn’t it interesting that the top 25% of people on this score, which West Point has spent many years and lots of your tax dollars trying to figure out, the best predictor of performance. You know, the people in the top 25% were actually just about as likely to drop out, and self-discipline which is being able to resist temptation, it’s also an important quality, but not such an important quality when it comes to high achievement. Very good quality when it comes to staying on your diet and doing your homework, not such a good quality, in terms of predicting extremely high challenge achievement. That seemed to be predictive as well, not quite as predictive when you run the statistics as grit.

We replicated the study, every single year in the last five years at West Point Military Academy leading lots of military people to call me and ask me how to increase grit in their cadets, or in their special forces officers or navy seals, or in their air-force cadets. But, the point here is that grit is predicting something, people who stay in a very very challenging environment are not just the very talented ones, it’s something else.

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In fact, in this study, and in every study that I’ve run since then, I was looking to see whether the gritty people were the ones who were the talented ones. Maybe when you’re really good at something it makes you stay in. In fact we find quite the opposite, at West Point and elsewhere we find that the gritty people on measures of talent have less. So it’s by no means a guarantee of grit that you actually start of as one of the gifted.

Here I am going to run quickly through some other studies. This is a grit measured by looking at peoples’ resumes for consistency and follow through. I would have gotten a terrible grit score for my resume, would have gotten grit for breath, low for grit. This is actually looking at grit in college resumes as a predictor of the teacher effectiveness in a teacher’s under resourced communities. And we measured teacher effectiveness the way it should be measured, which is the academic progress of their kids. And no other thing, I think, would substitute for that.

We did a great study, and I mean it was just fun, of the National Spelling Bee kids. I called up the director of the National Spelling Bee, who herself was a National Spelling Bee champion, she corrected the spelling on my email on her return, and that was fine too. And these kids are extraordinary children, and I think many people have this stereotype that Spelling Bee kids are verbal geniuses and the ones who win the Spelling Bee are sort of more genius-like than the ones who don’t win the Spelling Bee.

So I asked the director if that were true and she said, “I don’t think so but I don’t know what it is.” So we surveyed kids before they actually went to the Bee and what we found was that, again grit is the dark blue line, so the kids who actually placed higher in the finals of the National Spelling Bee were higher in grit and here is their verbal IQ, verbal IQ did predict, but again, the kids who were really high in verbal IQ tended to be lower in grit. So they were not merit, they were inversely related and self-discipline here, being able to resist temptation, stay on a diet, do your homework when you need to — Interestingly, the kids who were very high in self-discipline did do better.

But there was also the slacker group, in a bottom 25% of self-discipline who also did quite well but just about as well as the top. So again self-discipline, great for doing homework, terrific predictor of GPA, not such a great predictor of are you going to find a blue man group and stay with it, etc.

In a follow-up study to this one we investigated why is it that gritty kids are wining the Spelling Bee. So we recruited another sample of kids from the following year Spelling Bee, we sent them surveys, we measured their grit on self-report questionnaires, but then we asked them very detailed questions about what they did.

So it turns out the kids who were in the National Spelling Bee competition, they’re studying anywhere from an hour a week to scarily 35 or 40 hours a week. But what differentiates kids who are gritty from kids who are not gritty is not just the hours of work that they are putting in they’re putting the hardest kind of work in. They are not studying the words that they already know, they’re not sitting around being quizzed on what’s already pretty much coming easily, they isolate what they don’t know, they identify their own weaknesses and then they work just on that. And that seems to be characteristic of high achievement and of what grit enables you to do. It’s basically, being in a very uncomfortable place for some part of your day working extremely hard and then to get up and do it all over again and again and again.

There is a graph that goes with this 10-year-rule, that I mentioned at the beginning of the talk. This is the deliberate practice graph. This graph actually accurately describes the rise of skill, the gain in skill over time for really just about any domain that’s been studied. Even Mozart, who some would argue is proof of concept for genius — Mozart must have been born as great as he was because who else could have been composing melodies that we’re still listening to, at the age of 5 or 6.

It turns out that Mozart also fits this graph but he was doing probably 8 hours of deliberate practice a day, from as early as he could sit up, whereas most world class performers only do 4. But Mozart at very early age had already accumulated basically 10,000 hours of deliberate practice.

Here is the interesting thing on the graph. So it’s really 10 years since you started discipline till you get to world class peak performers. And another interesting point about this which you can’t see from this graph is that most people do this. They don’t have the grit to essentially sustain this deliberate practice over all this time and they basically plateau here.

I want to end with a couple of quotes. If you look at early films of people that we all love — maybe you love Will Smith — I do — maybe you love Matt Dillon or Rob Lowe, take any Academy Award winning actor and go watch one of their first films. More likely than not it was terrible. So the interesting thing is what makes somebody have a terrible film, which is poorly reviewed, and actually stay with it? Whatever it is, I think Will Smith has got it, and he was also very funny when he talks about it. And I think Woody Allen has it. And I think that essentially the question for the Blue [Roan] School and for the rest of us who are interested in children is whatever that is, let’s figure it out and then through the art which is teaching and education let’s bring it to children.

Thank you very much.

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